Aeschines Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Aeschines c. 390 b.c.-c. 314 b.c.

Athenian orator.

Considered one of the greatest Athenian orators, second only to his rival, Demosthenes, Aeschines used his verbal skills to try to convince the leaders of Athens to seek peace with Macedonia. Demosthenes was ultimately more persuasive in their bitter debates, however, and the defeated Aeschines exiled himself to Rhodes. Only three of Aeschines's speeches are now extant but they demonstrate Attic rhetoric at its finest and are important to the historical study of the rise of Philip II of Macedonia.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Aeschines's life except for what may be gleaned from his speeches and those of Demosthenes. Although Aeschines's parents were not poor, they had to work for their living. His father, Atrometus, taught reading and writing; his mother, Glaucothea, took part in religious purification ceremonies. Atrometus's profession of schoolteacher was not well respected, but Aeschines benefitted from associating with his father's students. Before entering politics, he worked as undersecretary to assorted magistrates and then was elected public secretary. In this post he read laws out loud to the Council and the Assembly. Aeschines next worked as an actor. As secretary and as an actor, he gained experience in using his voice in front of crowds. He married a woman from a fairly wealthy family sometime around 348 b.c., and the couple eventually had three children. No longer having to struggle for a living, Aeschines entered politics. Although he was not trained professionally in rhetoric, he was familiar with all the intricacies of the craft and took advantage of his excellent voice and impressive physique in addressing the Assembly. After a devastating rhetorical defeat at the hands of Demosthenes in 330 b.c., Aeschines left Athens for Rhodes, where he lived his remaining years, teaching rhetoric.

Major Works

Aeschines's first surviving speech is Against Timarchus (345 b.c.) While serving as an ambassador for Athens, Aeschines was either outmaneuvered or bribed by King Philip II. Although Aeschines was able to make the terms of the peace agreement with Macedonia less harsh than Philip had at first declared, the citizens of Athens were not pleased. Demosthenes, also involved in the peace agreement, charged Aeschines with treason. One of the planned witnesses for the prosecution was Timarchus. Aeschines successfully brought a countersuit against Timarchus, thus weakening Demosthenes's case. Although Against Timarchus accomplished what Aeschines had sought, Demosthenes went ahead with his case. On the Embassy, sometimes referred to as On the False Embassy (343 b.c.), preserves Aeschines's defense. Aeschines survived the battle but his political power waned, while Demosthenes's grew. The two men became even more bitter foes, and over the years neither missed an opening to attack the other. Against Ctesiphon (330 b.c.) is the last of Aeschines's surviving speeches. Although the speech's target is nominally Ctesiphon, who proposed that Demosthenes be given a crown for his services to Athens, its main purpose is to attack Demosthenes. Aeschines charges Ctesiphon with violations of Athenian law, but the infractions are minor, technical, and really just an excuse to discuss Demosthenes's career and argue why he does not deserve the award. Demosthenes replies with a speech known as On the Crown, considered a masterpiece, and prevails in the contest.

Critical Reception

Numerous critics have analyzed Aeschines's speeches for his debating tactics. Charles Darwin Adams explains that he makes use of accusations, slanders, and personal attacks, much as Demosthenes does, but falls short of his rival in the area of broad statesmanship. “In the two speeches of Aeschines in which we should expect a review of the whole field of international relations during the critical period of the rise of the Macedonian power, we find nowhere any large grasp of the situation, no broad view of either Athenian or Hellenic interests, nothing statesmanlike in the discussion of policies.” He believes this deficiency was largely responsible for Demosthenes gaining the advantage over Aeschines. J. F. Dobson praises On the Embassy overall, but is critical of its occasional vagueness and writes that sometimes “Aeschines seems to aim not at refuting but eluding the accusations.” E. Badian and Julia Heskel contend that Aeschines constructed misleading chronologies in On the Embassy in order to deceive his audience; a similar use of the trick is explained by Edward M. Harris. Cecil W. Wooten credits Aeschines for using the simple and effective technique of enumerating his arguments in the beginning of his speech and then consistently following through on them. Despite some reservations concerning their nastier elements, critics agree that the speeches of Aeschines are superb examples of Athenian oratory.